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The Perils of Servant Life

A servant working in a Georgian, Regency or Victorian household – the time periods in which my books are set – was very much at the mercy of her employer. These were the days before unions, Occupational Health and Safety, or income protection insurance mitigated against the ill fortune of being injured, or taken advantage of by a harsh mistress, or a young man with a roving eye.
The mistress of the household was often the arbiter of a servant’s future.
Many of my romances follow the lives of the young ladies in high society but in my latest story, The Duchess and the Highwayman, my heroine, Phoebe, pretends to be a servant after she’s wrongfully accused of murder. As a duchess, in satin and lace, with an educated voice and bearing, she’d be recognised instantly. However, in order to exist below the radar of the local magistrate whose advances she’s recently rejected, she believes her chances of survival are greater by disappearing into the great unwashed – a servant below notice.
For a long time she succeeds, but only through luck and the kindness of the ‘highwayman’ who rescues her from her vengeance-filled lover who’s just framed her for her husband’s murder.
Luck certainly had a role in the happiness of a servant’s life. For most servants, survival depended on their obedience and almost complete subjugation to the wishes of their employers in return for a roof over their heads, food and small wages.

Why was ‘a character’ so important?

Their ‘character’ or reputation was crucial to securing work and many a girl cast out from a secure job without a ‘character’ ended up on the streets, unable to secure more work because their previous employer refused to vouch for her.
Recently, I came upon a gem of a book discovered in a pile once belonging tomy grandmother who was born in 1903. Titled The Complete Letter Writer forLadies and Gentlemen, the book, published in 1908, offers a raft of lettersdesigned to be used as templates for prospective employers, lovers writing toupbraid a flirtatious fiancée or to break off an engagement.
Below are two examples of suggested wording offered by this indispensible companion to any mistress of a household eager to ensure that her little “below stairs” dominion was augmented by a girl of good character.

Good ‘character’

Here’s the ‘character’ a servant would hope her prospective employer would receive with all her questions answered in the affirmative.
Mrs. A will feel much obliged if Mrs. B. will kindly give her the character of MaryJones, who has applied to Mrs. A for the situation of housemaid. Mrs. A. will beglad to know if Mary Jones is honest and respectable; clean in her work andperson, and likely to suit. Is she good-tempered and obliging and tidy in herwork?
If Mrs. B. will kindly answer these questions and reply fully in confidence Mrs. Awill feel greatly indebted to her.

Bad ‘character’

But woe betide the poor, high-spirited girl referred to in the following letter:
Dear Madam,
My answer to your note as to Mary Gray must, I am sorry to have to say it, beunfavourable. I was upon the point of dismissing her when your note arrived, asI consider her quite an unfit person to be left alone in the house. She isexcessively indolent and very fond of a class of company that a girl ought not tosee.
Believe me, Madam.
Yours Sincerely,
The book is a real glimpse into the past and filled with gems.
*This blog was first published at Beyond Romance.

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